The following is an interview with Lemi Ghariokwu, the famous Nigerian visual artist who has created over 2000 album covers during his career and was responsible for making the artwork for half of Fela Kuti's 52 albums. We managed to catch up with him after he designed the artwork for the VMP July '15 feature "Super Ape" to talk about his career, his time with Fela Kuti, and what makes him tick.
[caption id="attachment_310" align="alignnone" width="750"]Lemi with his mural at the Detroit Music Hall[/caption]
VMP: Lemi you've had a massive career, and worked on so many different projects and with so many different artists over the last 40 years or so. Where did all of this begin? How did this get started?
Lemi: I use one word every time Tyler, I call it predestination. I believe in destiny. I believe we are made, that we are brought into the world, for a purpose. I believe that it is my destiny to do album art. I was in school and my dad wanted me to be a mechanical engineer. At that time I was in technical school or what you call high school, but all the time I was drawing and it would get me into trouble. *laughs* I graduated in 1973, 43 years ago, and I kept working and drawing on my own. I never had any training in art, I just learned from going to art exhibitions and going to the television station to do live drawings and portraits of the TV presenters there.
During all of that there were two things that happened: I was doing portraits and someone came and asked me if I could do a poster for a local bar, so of course I did the poster, and he framed it and put it in the bar for the clientele to see. Then one day there was a journalist who was in town from Lagos who told the bar owner that it was so well done that he wanted to meet the artist. When he met me, he asked to see my portfolio. Let me go back a little bit though because before that, Fela released an album called Roforofo Fight -The Music of Fela, which translated into English meant "A Fight In The Mud" or "A Fight In The Swamp", and so when I saw the album cover I decided to do my own version of it just for my own practice, which was influenced by Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon poster which included Bruce Lee, John Saxton, and Jim Kelly. Like I did for Super Ape, my own version of that cover for you, so also I made one for that Fela album just for myself.
So, when the journalist looked through my portfolio and saw the Fela cover I had drawn he asked if I could do album covers. I said yes, but that I had not done many. I had done one for my uncle's band which never got released and one for a local artist and that one was the first cover of mine to be published, but he was not a big artist. So the journalist said to me that he was going to tell Fela about me and bring a portrait of Fela for me to do my own version of as a test, and, actually Tyler, I did not believe him *laughs* I thought he was drunk. He was coming from the bar and I thought he was high or drunk or something, but the next day he brought the picture and after 4 hours I had finished my version of the portrait and when he saw it he said “Lemi come on we're going to see Fela” and, you know, I thought it was a joke. I told my mom I was going to meet Fela and she said to me “Lemi, be careful”, because Fela was notorious. You know, how Snoop Dogg is notorious in the US? *laughs* That's how Fela was too.
So I went with the journalist and met Fela and when he saw the portrait he said two words to me, he said "Wow! Goddamn it!" *laughs* So that was the beginning, in 1974, and that's the year that I did my first cover for Fela. I immediately became a star as a visual artist in Nigeria from that first cover, and then I became very close with Fela and I told him I was supposed to go study as a mechanical engineer and he said to me "Why should you go to be a mechanical engineer? You are an artist! That's your destiny!" I was a bit skeptical, but my mom said "Yep, that is true, you are an artist," and so I went and began making album covers for Fela. Since then, I've made over 2000 album covers over the course of my career, with many different artists but none bigger than Fela. Fela had 52 albums, and I designed about half of the covers. So, yeah, that's my destiny.
[caption id="attachment_307" align="alignnone" width="750"]Lemi showcasing his artwork in 1974[/caption]
VMP: Incredible. So, you said that in 1974 that was when you did the first cover for Fela and then you became the main person doing his artwork that same year. So you jumped right into the middle of it then?
Lemi: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Fela and I, we were very similar ideologically, and he gave me books to read on African history and all of these different things, and that gave me an advantage over the other artists he was working with at that time. So I became so close with him, I became like his son, and one of his closest friends, and one of his advisors, and I became privy to the reasons behind why he was making all of this music. When I would work on a cover for him, he never gave me concepts or direction, I would just listen to the music and I would hit a bullseye every time. We communicated very clearly, and so that's how this whole thing came about.
[caption id="attachment_309" align="alignnone" width="586"]Lemi hanging out with Fela Kuti[/caption]
VMP: Wow. So, I know the creative process can be a bit of a mystery even to the people interacting with it, but for you specifically what was the process for going about making your covers.
Lemi: Yeah, good, yes so I would listen to the music many many times and that is what would would give me ideas. For Fela, because I got so involved in the political struggle for the freedom of the African people with him, and because Fela was very political and very politicized, that was also a big influence in those cases. I was a member of the Young African Pioneers, which was the political group related to Fela's compound Kalakuta, his own Republic that he tried to start inside Nigeria *laughs* he was crazy man, it was crazy times, he was very radical and went to court over 200 times and I was very close to all of that.
So, one time in 1976 Fela asked me to come with him to visit his family because they couldn't live in the same place as him, and while we were there it came on the news about a shooting of students in Sowetu, which was in southwest South Africa, and the Apartheid government had wanted everyone to learn the Dutch language of Afrikaans and the students refused and after the police tried to force them to learn it, to no avail, they shot some of the students. So that was all over the news that week and after that Fela came up with a song called “Sorrow Tears and Blood”, and I was a part of that whole process with him. I knew exactly what he was talking about in that song, and when he came to me for the album art I knew exactly what to do.
In general, though, with other artists I would listen to the music over and over and over, so many times, and I would decide what aspect of it I wanted to portray on the cover, and then that's what I would do. Fela it was easier, but for other artists that is what I would do. So, in the US there is a group called Antibalas that I did a cover for and that one was difficult because I never met them and so I had them send me a rough mix of the music and I kept listening and trying to get their vibes from what I was hearing and sometimes they would email me and say “Lemi are you ready yet?” and I said “No no no not ready yet!” and it took 2 months, and when I finally sent it over they accepted it right away.
VMP: *laughs* So what are some of the things that push or inspire you creatively?
Lemi: I get inspired by the movement of people, and what's going on in the world, and the process of human to human relationships and the ways we go about being human beings. Like, when Severan sent me Super Ape, you know I had the album in 1976 because it was a huge album but it had been awhile and when I played it for the first time I connected with it immediately. I was skanking I was skanking *laughs* so I would play it all week in whatever car of mine I was driving.
VMP: *laughs* Same, that record is so so good. Looking back over the last 40 years or so, what are some of your favorite moments, some moments that stick out to you when you thought to yourself “Wow, this is an important thing in my life” or look back and feel grateful for being a part of that moment.
Lemi: *laughs* So many Tyler, so many, well one was at the very beginning when Fela saw that portrait and said "wow! goddamn it!" that was, wow, oh wow, it gets me every single time Tyler. Another one was when Fela was in the hospital, after the police had attacked Fela's commune and he was hospitalized and very brutalized and the journalist who took me to Fela called me and asked if I wanted to go see him and I said yes of course. There were 20 people or so in the room, and Fela was very out of it but when he saw the journalist and recognized him as his friend he became more awake and then he saw me and he lit up and said "Oh! The Artist!" and yeah man, yeah, that went into my psyche, man, that went into my mind. It was the moment when I chose to take on the role of the artist.
Another moment, you know I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't womanize but I humanize with women do you know what I mean Tyler? *laughs*. So, when it came time to design the second album cover for Fela, Fela was trying to get me to smoke marijuana because everyone smoked a lot of that, and I said no, I don't smoke, I just want a Fanta, and Fela says to me "Lemi! An artist does not drink Fanta, you need to smoke instead. You've got to try some weed." And I was intimidated and worried for myself because I have a light brain but I decided to try some weed and I was a bit high, I wasn't sitting in myself very well, and Fela took me home himself personally in his Range Rover and he says to me "Lemi, make sure you don’t talk to your parents or ask them any questions"
VMP: *laughs* So you must have been really high at that point if Fela made sure you avoided your parents.
Lemi: *laughs* Yes, and then he said "go to bed and tomorrow work on the album art" and so I went in and said goodnight to my parents and you know what I woke up at twelve o'clock the next afternoon *laughs*. So, I was maybe 6 hours high, I was so high, I was seeing so many different images for my illustration so when I woke up I took my notebook and wrote down all the ideas I had had, and I was trying to work on as many as possible, and so when I did the cover and I took it to Fela he said "Wooooowwwwww. Lemi, motherfucker man!" *laughs*
[caption id="attachment_306" align="alignnone" width="750"]Lemi working on the No Bread album cover (no. 1)[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_305" align="alignnone" width="586"]Lemi working on the No Bread album cover (no. 2)[/caption]
VMP: Did he try to get you to smoke weed again?
Lemi: Yes, he wanted me to continue smoking weed but I said no because I have a light brain. But after that I started reading the books of a Tibetan monk who wrote all of these books on metaphysics. I studied all of these books and because of that, I decided I can use meditation to get into that place mentally, get that same focus, that getting high can also give you but I don't like smoking. It helped me focus on getting done what I wanted to do. My covers are very eclectic, all different styles, collages, images, all sorts of things and that was a big influence on perfecting my technique.
After that I designed about 200 covers for Phonogram Records, and I worked for them for 11 years, and I worked on a lot of re-issues, like Bob Marley etc etc. So many classic records. And then a lot of local artists as well. As a professional, in Nigeria I was the only one who people wanted to do their work and it was that way for many years. And even now there are so many people wanting to work with me and sometimes I go out and look at the sky and say "Fela, where are you, come and see what is happening!"
[caption id="attachment_308" align="alignnone" width="750"]Lemi working on album covers for Polygram Records[/caption]
VMP: Wow, Lemi, you’ve had an incredible life so far. I mean, that’s phenomenal stuff. I know you're busy so I only have one more question for you. You've experienced quite a bit, and learned so much, I'm curious to hear what advice you have for the creatives reading this who also hope to have a life of making art. Said another way, what's Lemi's life advice?
Lemi: The advice I constantly give to everybody, I don't discriminate because I think everyone needs good advice, so the first thing I always say is find out who you are. In studying African history I came across the motto for one of our ancient centers of learning and the motto for that place was "Man, know thyself". Then, once you know who you are, follow your heart, don't let society sway you, don't let other people sway you, don't let even yourself sway you. There must be no obstacles. Then, when you find what you should be doing, pour yourself completely into your work, work harder than you think you can at it, there are no miracles, there is only work. Fela was a workaholic, I am a workaholic, and it's not about the money, it's about pushing yourself further and further and creating the best things that you possibly can. That, Tyler, is my advice.